3rd Place Co-Winner in the 2021 LifeWriting Contest.
by Suzanne Adam
“Do you think we’re lost?” Margery asks. “Should we turn back?”
“I don’t know.” I pause to catch my breath. “We’ve already come so far.” The thought of retracing our steps back to the trailhead feels overwhelming, scrambling up and down rocky steep embankments, clinging to tree roots and vines. Are we even on the correct trail? I imagine my husband reading newspaper headlines: Two elderly gringas missing in Colombian jungle. He’d had his doubts about this solo trip of mine.
We weigh the evidence. “Trail sign said a forty-five minute walk,” says Margery. “It’s already been almost two hours.” She pulls out her cell phone. Perhaps a park ranger can give us some assistance. No signal.
“I hear the ocean ahead, but we don’t seem to be getting any closer,” I tell her. The trail supposedly leads to a mirador, a lookout over the Caribbean. “Let’s go on. We must be getting close.” Overhead loud claps of thunder accompany advancing black clouds. Though we’re already wet from intermittent drizzles, this storm sounds more serious. “Let’s try to beat the cloudburst.”
We’re somewhere in the jungle in Tayrona Park in Colombia’s Sierra Madre. Getting to know the Park was one of the main reasons I’d given to my friend, Margery, who has lived many years in nearby Cartagena, for my proposed trip to Colombia. I was so pleased she agreed to make this journey with me.
Margery and I met during Peace Corps training in 1964 in Kansas City. She was then posted in southern Colombia, and I in Barranquilla on the Magdalena River near where it flows into the Caribbean. Over the years we lost contact, until attending a Peace Corps reunion here four years ago.
Petite, sprightly Margery, wearing a Yankees baseball cap and sturdy shoes, leads the way, clambering crab-like up the embankment. I follow, looking for footholds on the root-ridden, muddy bank, thankful for my trekking stick, which helps keep my weight off my left foot afflicted with painful plantar fasciitis. Did I mention I am wearing my old Keen sandals? We hadn’t decided on our destination when we took the bus this morning into Santa Marta so my trekking shoes rest undisturbed back at the house.
We come across another wooden sign relating in lofty words the sacred nature of the area for the now-extinct indigenous Tayrona people. “I wish they’d cut the poetry and just say how much further we must go,” I grumble.
Just when we think we’ve conquered the last of the arroyos, another appears around the bend. I groan and struggle to make my way up the opposite bank of the ravine, holding out my trekking stick for Margery to give me a pull. My turquoise capri pants are smeared with mud as I slip and slide. Back on flat ground, I lurch to rest on an inviting boulder, where I loosen my backpack and lean back to gaze at the lush canopy, dotted with wild-haired palm trees. A parade of leaf-cutter ants trails up a tree trunk. In the understory I recognize a kind of wild philodendron and huge birds’ nest ferns. Such peace in this spot with only birdsong to be heard.
A rustling sound in the leaves behind me startles me.
“Look! Monkeys!” I point up into the waving branches where three red howler monkeys make their way. I briefly wonder if they’ll come closer. Are we in danger? But they show no interest in us.
The roar of the ocean sounds closer. A wooden sign with a red arrow indicates we’re on an official trail, though not the one we set out to follow.
“I see the thatched roof of the mirador!” cries Margery.
Heartened, we wend our way up the steps to the lookout atop a small hill. The sky is overcast, a shade lighter than the pewter sea. Below us, waves break against a dark, jagged coastline, occasionally broken by stretches of white sand.
We snap some photos, proof that we are here. Yet the question remains: how far back to the trailhead? Just then a human being appears coming from the opposite direction. He’s young, barefoot and looks like he might speak English. He does. His name is Joe. He’s been travelling around South America and now plans to return to Maryland for Thanksgiving.
“How much further do we have to go?” We ask in unison. We describe our odyssey and our hike of two hours.
“It’s not far at all,” he reassures us. “If you want I’ll go with you. It’s flat most of the way.”
Words sweet to our ears.
We tell him that we’d been Peace Corps Volunteers here in Colombia over fifty years ago.
“I’m thinking about joining the Peace Corp,” he says. As we slosh through puddles in the trail (my sandals weren’t a bad choice after all), Margery and I tell him that it was a life-changing experience for us, influencing the future paths we’d follow. Our choice of the Peace Corps maybe is proof of our genetic need for new adventures.
At last. The trailhead. We bid adios to Joe, thanking him for his company and head to the highway to try to flag down a bus back to Santa Marta. Just then the sky opens and releases its deluge. My sandals are packed with mud, my hair pasted to my head, and it feels wonderful, though I would like to find a bathroom.
Margery and I decide we’ve earned medals for our accomplishment. And we’re just starting. Another day we plan a pilgrimage to Aracateca (alias Macondo), the birthplace of Colombia’s Nobel winner, Gabriel García Marquez, author “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
A son called this my “eat, pray and love” trip. Perhaps it is.
Suzanne Adam is a California native who served in the Peace Corps in Colombia before moving to Santiago, Chile in 1972 to marry her boyfriend, Santiago. She explores how this experience shaped her life in her 2015 memoir Marrying Santiago, followed by Notes from the Bottom of the World: A Life in Chile in 2019. A member of Santiago Writers, her essays have been published in The Christian Science Monitor, California Magazine, Literary Traveler and Persimmon Tree. She blogs at tarweedspirit.blogspot.com.
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